“Freedom Selfie,” which Foreign Policy Initiative’s Twitter account retweeted hours after Liz Wahl resigned from RT (Photo from Twitter feed)

Journalists Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal have published a story on the resignation of Russia Today anchor Liz Wahl. It strongly suggests that a fellow for the neoconservative think tank Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) played a key role in Wahl’s decision to leave the network a couple weeks ago.

The story, published at Truthdig, highlights how Wahl’s act of protest against RT earned her multiple invitations to appear on major news or television programs. It led to some journalists taking the time to do exposés on the network. But what the news media did not probe was the fact that FPI’s Twitter feed had hyped Wahl’s resignation before it even happened with tweets like “#WordOnTheStreet says that something big might happen on RT in about 20-25 minutes.”

Jamie Kirchick, an FPI fellow (and also Daily Beast contributor), was the first to publish an exclusive. It turned out, as Kirchick admitted, “Wahl initially reached out to me in August, after I launched my own impromptu protest on RT against Putin’s homophobic repression. Wahl felt morally compromised working for the network, she told me, but wasn’t yet prepared to quit.”

“We stayed in touch periodically over the past 6 months, and I always encouraged her to follow her conscience in making a decision about her professional future,” he said.  “The network’s absurd coverage of Russia’s invasion, Wahl told me earlier this week, was the last straw.”

What Khalek and Blumenthal delve into is how FPI, where Kirchick works, was launched by William Kristol, Dan Senor and Robert Kagan. It “grew directly out of the Project for a New American Century that led the public pressure campaign for a unilateral US invasion of Iraq” after 9/11. They outlined Kirchick’s history of working with well-connected neoconservatives committed to lobbying for war.

Wahl was suspended from her anchor position at RT just as Kirchick went on air to protest anti-gay legislation in Russia. According to Khalek and Blumenthal, she was upset that she was not getting paid enough at the network or getting more support for her work from staff — and looking for an opportunity to exit from RT.

Even Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, who wrote an article aimed at exposing what he called “Putin’s American dupes,” used the words “helped coordinate” to describe what Kirchick had done.

The story goes on to relate how Kirchick encouraged her to resign and knew to some extent that her resignation was just the kind of story he could push into the media. Not only would it fit his view of US foreign policy but it would offer him a chance to further target RT to gin up more condemnation of Russia in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine.

Now, I am not a passive observer in all of this. I was investigating this story too. But I made a mistake when I was covering the story. In my excitement, I called Kirchick’s cell phone number and left a voice mail message after he hung up on me. That message, which was uncharacteristically aggressive, included an unfortunate mention of First Look.

The message offered Kirchick a preview of what I was writing and how I planned to challenge the narrative he (and others) were fueling in the media around Wahl’s resignation. I had pitched the story but not to First Look. I pitched it to The Intercept. Publication was being considered, but it had not been formally accepted. So, on two levels, I committed a derelict action.

I should not have invoked First Look because I had not pitched it to First Look, and I should not have mentioned them when I left the message because that invited attention that First Look did not deserve. This was a mistake, and I immediately apologized to all working for the media organization, especially those who had to confront what I had done that day. (An executive editor’s comments were published in a Daily Beast story by Kirchick.)

I also called Wahl before calling Kirchick. I left a direct but non-threatening voicemail on her phone informing her she had 24 hours to respond. She called me back about 20 minutes after. Unfortunately, that message included a mention of First Look, which was inappropriate.

Having addressed that, there are some points I want to make on Wahl’s resignation and why the issues raised in the story by Khalek and Blumenthal are critically important.

(1) Unlike Khalek and Blumenthal, I was able to talk to Wahl. She returned my call after I left her a message that gave her a preview of what I had found out about problems she had while working for RT.  I wanted to know if she would dispute these allegations about her time in the workplace.

Wahl returned my call on March 12. She was getting ready to appear on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and said, “I’m in a rush. But I can go into your questions more in depth later.”

She immediately went on the defensive. “If you want to work with this propaganda machine that’s putting out lies about me, you can go ahead and do that but the truth is the truth.”

“You can do whatever you want if you want to work with them to defame me, but it won’t probably be in your best interest” she said.   “They’re a propaganda machine and they’ve already put out lies about me. And the truth is going to come out so if you want to work with them to defame me you can go ahead and do that.”

She was very worked up about the fact that I was interested in her past history at RT. I tried to calm her by saying that I had no interest in “defaming” her.  She said she appreciated that and mentioned she was getting ready for a show, and needed to prepare so she could maintain her composure.

“It’s been very overwhelming. There’s people out there who think I am a CIA operative paid off by a mainstream network. There’s just so many allegations out there and the response has just been so crazy,” Wahl added. It was overwhelmingly positive, she said, but then there were others she were convinced were just trying to “defame” her. (It seemed like she believed these people “defaming” her were working for RT, but no one in RT management was willing to go on the record for the story by Khalek and Blumenthal.)

At this moment, Wahl asked that we go off record so she could further explain how she believed RT was trying to control the fallout from her resignation.

I attempted to get her to answer more questions, but she kept referring me back to Kirchick’s exclusive on her.

(2)  In the process of researching this story, I contacted Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog organization. To the extent that Kirchick and Foreign Policy Initiative were involved in advancing Wahl’s story, he said this kind of coordination amounted to a “tougher propaganda coup” in the US media that was very important to understand.

Typically, when someone leaves or is fired or resign, all kinds of stories are published about how difficult that person was to work with. However, with this, there was “no attempt to even want to understand what was happening,” said Hart.  It was, to most media, a “perfect story” and nobody needed to ask questions.

People pushing the story of her resignation liked it because it portrayed Russia’s control over the media in a “very profound and stark way.”

“The way it was promoted became this national news sensation where these people who prior to that were obscure media figures were now on CNN to talk about message manipulation and propaganda on their networks,” he said, “It seems it was designed for only one purpose that was to whip up this Cold War frenzy, anti-Russia sentiment among people who otherwise didn’t know what RT was. That would seem to be the function of the stories.” And they “fit in greatly with stories of Putin being delusional or disconnected from reality.”

He further explained the “most obvious lesson” of all this was “that there was this immense propaganda value in blowing up the statements from the resignations of people from RT,” a cable channel that very few people watch.

(3)  RT host Abby Martin was not celebrated when she condemned Russia’s actions in Crimea on air. If this is just about exposing a Russian state-funded media network, wouldn’t she be a hero like Wahl too?

Martin’s actions did not easily fit into the neocon propaganda mold, however. When she made her statement on air, she indicated she was opposed to all state interventions in any sovereign nation’s affairs and that was why she opposed Russia’s actions. Someone with this kind of principled stance would not likely be supported by an individual with ties to the very people who helped fuel the propaganda that made the invasion of Iraq possible.

The larger point is that everyone knows who is funding RT, which has very minimal influence in this country. RT is not going to convince hundreds of thousands of Americans that all military action by Putin is justified. However, hundreds of thousands of Americans might be convinced by US media outlets that any planned military action by the US government is justified.

Kristol, who had no problem pushing a war in Iraq that resulted in the deaths of at least 1 million Iraqis, recently complained about “war-weariness” and then, as if giving a pep talk, later wrote, “A war-weary public can be awakened and rallied. Indeed, events are right now doing the awakening. All that’s needed is the rallying. And the turnaround can be fast.”

Through innuendo and insinuation, through media manipulation and behind-the-scenes coordination, there is a faction that is not satisfied with a United States that simply relies on peace and diplomacy in maintaining foreign affairs. They crave confrontation and shows of military strength, especially against countries like Russia, China and Iran. And, when it appears they are trying to impose their agenda on the American public and the world, it is at minimum the duty of journalists to ask questions sooner than later and investigate what they are up to so that the climate is not allowed to escalate to a point where another manufactured war could happen again.